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McCain vs. Obama: Who’s Got Your Back?

Attorney takes a look at where the candidates stand on broadcast issues.

Which presidential candidate would be more of a friend to broadcasters?

Jeffrey J. Gee of the law firm Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth considered the question in his column in the company’s newsletter. He says the conventional narrative — that broadcasters would have an easier time under a Republican administration than a Democratic one, because of the deregulatory approach typically favored by the GOP — does not seem to hold true anymore.

He said recent FCC efforts under a Republican administration have added a “peristaltic wave” of regulatory burdens and proposals including, among other things, the “localism” initiative.

“Moreover, as the former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Republican presidential candidate John McCain has been sharply critical of the broadcasting industry in the past,” Gee wrote. “Thus, broad party labels may not provide a useful, or accurate, basis for predicting future regulatory policies.”

Media consolidation is where the candidates have the greatest differences, Gee feels.

He says Barack Obama has made technology policy a “substantial part” of his platform and has addressed regulation of broadcasters often. “In particular, Obama has come out strongly for curbing increased media consolidation and for expanding opportunities for minority and small-business ownership of media outlets.” The Democrat, Gee said, also has said he favors shorter license renewal periods with greater public input.

McCain, Gee said, has not been as outspoken on media consolidation: “As chairman of the Commerce Committee, McCain supported many, although not necessarily all, of the media and telecommunications mergers of the late 1990s and early 2000s notwithstanding his opposition to the largely deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996,” Gee observed.

“More recently, through various aides and advisors, McCain has expressed support for basing broadcast ownership analysis on all available media sources, including the Internet — a shift that could potentially loosen local ownership restrictions.” Gee notes that this approach could also undermine, “if not eviscerate,” the scarcity rationale that has provided a justification for content-based regulation of broadcasting.

On diversity in the media, McCain has favored the return of the diversity sale tax credit rather than more direct means of increasing minority media ownership.

The candidates are closer on other topics. On localism, Obama supports “new rules promoting greater coverage of local issues and greater responsiveness of broadcasters to the communities they operate in.” McCain’s campaign has stated that greater “clarity” is needed on the subject of broadcast localism, which Gee feels suggests that the FCC’s localism push will not end regardless of the election’s outcome.

Further, both have been supportive of expanding LPFM; Obama favors free political air time on radio and television, as does McCain; both voted to increase maximum fines on indecent broadcasts and have called for better enforcement of indecency rules.

“The more interesting point for broadcasters, and the media industry in general, is that both candidates actually know what the letters FCC stand for and can probably name more than one FCC commissioner,” Gee continues. “This is a distinct difference from presidential campaigns of the past. While clearly very important to the media industry, communications regulation is often considered something of a backwater in the larger picture of Washington,” compared to taxes, health care and defense.

Obama has focused on media and technology as part of his platform and has expressed specific ideas about how it should operate; McCain has spent years with oversight over FCC policy and is familiar with the industry and its issues. “No matter who gets elected, the FCC and the broadcast industry may be in for a more engaged and involved administration than we have seen in a very long time,” Gee concludes. “Whether or not that will be a good thing for broadcasters remains to be seen.”